Atlanta legally blind lesbian gearing up for cycle ride across Georgia

Angela Davis, 44, lost her vision more than a decade ago but is ready to see the state of Georgia from the seat of a bicycle. Or from the seat of a trike, to be more specific.

Although legally blind, Davis, an out lesbian, is a devoted cyclist gearing up to ride in the Bicycle Ride Across Georgia in June. She’s set up a website to help raise money to purchase the specialty trike she needs for the trip, already raising nearly $3,000 of her $3,900 goal.

A native of Wichita, Kansas, Davis moved to Atlanta in 2007. She attended Clark University from 1988 to 1992 and is a certified rehabilitation counselor who works with people who are blind or visually impaired.

We asked her a few questions about her love of cycling, the need for a specialized tricycle, and her quest to ride across Georgia and eventually the U.S.

How is it you believe you became legally blind?

I went to Namibia in the summer of 2003. I was there for two weeks. Three months after I returned to Nashville, Tennessee, where I was working as the admissions director of the Vanderbilt Divinity School, I had my first bout of optic neuritis [inflammation of the optic nerve] and started losing vision. After a horrendous experience of health complications, including several bouts of optic neuritis, I was left legally blind seven months after my initial onset.

What does it mean to be legally blind?

Legal blindness means that my vision is less than 20/200. I have no usable vision in my left eye, and have partial vision in my right. I usually tell people that my vision loss is centered around 3 Ds: details, distance, and depth.

I can not see details. I tell folks to give me their names when I meet them on the street because I will not know who they are unless I have spent a lot of time with them. I don’t always register the details of the face. Rather, I get a sense of how someone walks, the shape of their person, and the sound of their voice. I can only see in this manner for a short distance. If someone is waving to me at the end of the block I’m lost seeing that. I also have a problem with depth perception. Stairs can be a challenge without my cane. I especially hate red, cement stairs because I totally have no sense of the depth. I guess that is because I am also color-blind. I don’t know, but red and greens can be hard to distinguish.

Do you have any anger or frustration because you could once see and now cannot?

Life happens to us all. Frankly, we are going to see a lot more folks with vision loss due to aging baby boomers and the rise of diabetes in this country.

I am not angry. I am grateful that I have had the benefit of blindness training, an opportunity to return to graduate school to earn another masters degree, and have current employment.

In many ways, I am very blessed because I know of folks who have not had the opportunities that I have had. It is very difficult to get your life back on track having had vision loss, but if you are an adult with limited resources, little education, and no vocational rehabilitation your life can be even more difficult.

I guess that is why I am glad to be a certified rehabilitation counselor who works with individuals who are blind and vision impaired. I feel that I need to give back because so many people have helped me get back on track. It has taken years for that to happen. I don’t want folks to think that you get your life back overnight when you incur a disability. It can take years to find your stride again. It has taken me years.

How did you come to peace with being legally blind?

I am a deeply spiritual person, an artist, a writer, a counselor, and a curious soul. My struggle may be vision loss, but someone else may be struggling with how to raise six kids on limited funds or how to care for a loved one.

I think it was important for me to keep myself afloat by thinking of what I could bring to the world as opposed to waddling in what, some would say, the world had taken from me.

It’s been interesting because some folks have told me that I lost my vision because God was trying to increase my ministry (I’m an ordained minister) or because the devil was trying to tempt me. I know that neither of those ideas are right. I also know that I did not lose my vision because I am a lesbian, as someone else told me. I think my card just came up and this is what I have to deal with in life.

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 3.27.30 PMHow long have you been cycling?

I started riding bikes when I was a child growing up in Wichita. I would pack lunches and ride off on my bike as if there were a big adventure ahead. I had bikes as a teenager, and bought my own bikes when I became adult. I commuted to work by bike when I lived in Portland, Oregon. Over the past few years, I would see cyclist in Lycra shorts and jerseys riding on cycles, and I would become a bit sad. It dawned upon me that cycling was something I missed. I have not enjoyed any consistent athletic activity, though, since my vision loss.

I started looking at bikes again when the Georgia Blind Sports Association started a tandem cycling club. It was great to participate in their initial ride, but I wanted more. I wanted to ride solo, and felt I could do it. During this time, I also discovered recumbent tricycles (trikes). They were very expensive, and I knew that they were beyond my financial resources. Instead, I started looking for a used bike, and my sister found a $20 Trek at a garage sale.

Describe your first ride on that $20 bike.

I took the bike to a local shop where they added fenders, a rack, and lights. I came back four hours later to ride the bike home. I was scared, and I think the store clerk was scared, too. I had never ridden a bike solo on a city street. After walking three blocks, I bit the bullet and got on the bike. I rode, as straight as I could, until I came to a major street. I crossed at the light, and walked the bike for a couple of blocks until I started down a side street to the MARTA rail station.

The westbound train took me downtown where I transferred to a southbound train. Transportation angels were standing guard as the train cars were not crowded. I got to my stop, and took the bike upstairs where I, with the help of a very nice driver, put it on the rack in front of the bus. Once at my stop, I got my bike from the rack. I was so nervous that I forgot to put the rack back up, and the driver got off the bus to help me. I told him that I was legally blind. He told me to be careful, and I thanked him for his patience. The rest of the way home was basically downhill until the entrance to my subdivision where I got off and walked for a quarter of a mile.

It was a very scary venture, and I can’t believe that I did that. I guess it is a sign of my determination and desire to get back into cycling.

The second ride I took was with a friend on the Silver Comet Trail. We rode 4.2 miles. I was thankful for her white jersey which glowed in the shadows. The trail was not the easiest ride as there were pedestrians scattered on both sides, cyclists speeding through the crowd, and tall trees which created shadows that diminished my contrast.

We stopped at the bike shop on the trail, and to my amazement, they had demos of Catrike recumbents. The manager let me ride the Villager and Trail models. I knew from that point on that my life had changed. The fear of falling off the bike was gone. A fall on an upright bike would be especially dangerous because I have an artificial hip. My vision impairment and orthopedic issues are both resolved by a trike. The trike also provided me with a better view of the road. I felt freedom and independence course through my body. Something within me said, “Angela, you are back!”

Explain the process of how you cycle.

Very slowly … I have peripheral vision. My central vision is damaged, but I can scan on the road to see things for better clarity. I have ridden with a friend who usually yells back at me to stop or to inform me when folks are ahead. I can see big things like cars if they are in my line of vision. I just can’t always see if something is far ahead or coming from my left.

I am going to invest in a two-radio so that my friend and I can better communicate. There is a great bike communication system but it is expensive. I think the radios may be the answer to our problem.

Why is it a dream of yours to participate in BRAG?

I want to participate in BRAG because it is a way I can participate in cycle touring. I can camp each night, have meals made for me, meet other cyclists, and explore our beautiful state. I want to ride across the country one day. BRAG will be a small step in my getting there.

In addition, I think it is important for the public to see people with disabilities participate in sports and recreation events. Just because I am legally blind doesn’t mean that I can’t be a cyclist. I like to say that I am disabled and “wheelabled.”

I would like to think that my cycling and doing BRAG may inspire someone else to find what gets them “back” into life. I know that this venture is not for me alone. So when folks contribute to my campaign they are not just contributing to my trike purchase, but also to the dreams of others who will be inspired by my journey.

Welcome to BRAG. Come Ride With Us! from Roger Strauss on Vimeo.